John Addison: When the World Seems Against You, Here Are 4 Tips for Being a Mentally Tough Leader

UPDATED: June 8, 2023
PUBLISHED: January 18, 2016

When Art Williams started Primerica, known back then as A.L. Williams, he came up against a lot of criticism. We’re talking about organized PR campaigns, lawsuits and lobbying efforts that basically painted Art to be something only slightly less sinister than Satan himself.

They said he was a con man and a crook who was pulling people away from good, reputable life insurance companies and getting them mixed up with a fly-by-night scam that was so poorly funded it was sure to go under soon. It was all pretty horrific and, as a young guy, watching it happen, I knew there was no way in the world I’d ever survive such an onslaught of hate and negativity. But Art? He seemed energized by it. And the more they attacked him, the more energized he became. Art knew that he was right. The other side had to make the attacks personal because Art won on the facts. He is, hands down, the most mentally tough person I’ve ever known.

It took me a little longer to build up that toughness. I was raised to be a peacemaker. To this day, I still hate confrontation. But I also know as a leader, being tough is necessary in order to be effective. Think about it, all of the great leaders—men like Churchill, Lincoln and Jefferson—aren’t remembered for what they did when things were easy. They are remembered for what they did during times of turmoil and divisiveness. So are the not-so-great leaders.

The (sad) honest truth is, when you’re in a leadership role—whether it’s as president of the PTA or president of the free world—there is always going to be someone who disagrees with your ideas, policies and actions. Some of those people are going to go to great lengths to try to destroy you. If you haven’t grown a thick skin, they very well may. You don’t want that to be your legacy. That’s why it’s imperative to develop mental and emotional toughness when you make the decision to take on a leadership role. Getting tough is a process that takes some time, but there are a few things you can incorporate right now to get on the right path.

1. Believe in what you’re doing.

It’s a lot easier to be tough when you truly believe in what you’re doing and you know, whether anyone else can see it or not, that what you are doing is right. If you’re uncertain, those negative voices and hateful words are going to wear you down a lot easier and you’ll eventually prove your critics right. Don’t do anything unless you can say for certain it is the right thing and you are willing to fight for it till the end with passion and gusto, even when the going gets tough.

2. Remember, it’s just an opinion.

Even on those days when it seems like everyone is against you and questions your leadership abilities and values, remember their ugly rhetoric is just their opinion. There’s not a single person on the planet everybody likes. There’s also not a single person on the planet everyone hates. So, you always have to keep in mind you’re not a villain, a loser or incompetent and that there is at least one person in your company or your life who thinks you’re pretty alright. 

3. Think about your teams.

Nothing is worse than being right smack in the middle of a crisis and knowing the person who is supposed to be leading your organization through all the mess is probably going to fold like a cheap suit when people start hurling insults and criticisms. If you’re looking for a way to have your people lose faith in you, wavering and caving when the going gets tough is it. Stay the course and be someone they can count on and whose strength and resilience they admire.

4. Let it fuel you.

Take a page from Art’s book and let the negativity fuel your leadership. Keep doing what you’re doing and prove the naysayers wrong. You are never going to please them and the more you succeed, the angrier they are going to get, so you might as well give them something to be really mad about. Hold your head up high, work your tail end off, and be even better and stronger because of them.

Leadership isn’t a role for the faint of heart. Hateful words do hurt and over time they can take a mental and emotional toll on you. You don’t have to stop being a nice or likable person in order to be a leader, but you do have to be tough. It’s not always going to be easy, but you being a strong beacon people can count on is what is necessary for your teams, your organization and your legacy. 

Check out the 13 things mentally strong people don’t do—and oust the weak links in your thinking and behavior patterns.

John Addison is the Leadership Editor for SUCCESS and the author of Real Leadership: 9 Simple Practices for Leading and Living with Purpose,aWall Street Journal and USA Todaybest-seller. Renowned for his insight and wisdom on leadership, personal development and success, John is a sought-after speaker and motivator. Read more on his blog, and follow John on Facebook and Twitter.